Grace and Gratitude

Deb and I have a special procedure the very first moment of our entering out cabin “up north” as we say in Wisconsin: whoever is first in the cabin walks over to the light above a sign that simply reads “gratitude.”

Gratitude

 

We are grateful to have the cabin, grateful to come and to enjoy, grateful for the water, the fireplace, the Chinese checkers that we always play, and grateful for the front porch from which we watch boaters, swimmers, fishermen, and deer, the latter of which cross right in front of our cabin to the little cabin about 100 meters from our shore. These moments of gratitude are not limited to our times at the cabin. Sometimes, we simply sit outside, watch a sunset, talk about our work with people, read, or talk when one of us will say, “I don’t know what it is,” meaning that “I don’t know what it is that could make life better.” The other of us responds, “I can’t think of anything else.” Don’t get me wrong, we are very much people who don’t like things that happen, or don’t happen, and we get disappointed from time to time, and yet this feeling of gratitude seems to be an important hallmark of what we have. Some of what we have has come from other people, like people who taught us our trade. Some of what we have has come from things we worked hard to achieve, like our trade. And some of what we have has come seemingly straight from God, like our trade. But much more than our “trade” do we find the necessity that we feel gratitude.

I looked up the etymology of the word gratitude and found, not surprisingly, that it comes from the Latin word gratus, which means grace, namely (at least in this etymologist’s understanding) “the presence of God manifested in people through their virtues.” I’ll go with this definition.

I have heard the term “gratitude” coming from many sources over the recent years, a fact for which I am quite…grateful. I heard a personal trainer talking about good workout, good food, good living, and gratitude. So, I think that this whole business of appreciating what we have might just be nudging the narcissism out of the picture slowly but surely.

When we receive something, very often we don’t deserve it. Like love. I often tell my people, “You can’t really ask for love; you don’t deserve it; you can’t pay for it; and you certainly can’t demand it. However, you need it.” This is tough for a lot of people because they get lost in the “I don’t deserve it” or “I need it.” I think the whole package of these statements is important to take, not pieces. In fact, the receiving of something like love is often tough because it comes from someone’s act of grace.

Grace

I think it might actually be harder to receive than to give. Yes, we have heard platitudes like, “It is better to give than to receive,” and certainly this is true. But on the receiving side of someone’s grace, someone’s love, someone’s gift, we are often compelled to think that we deserve it, need to pay for it, or even reject it out of some kind of misplaced fear. My biblical understanding of this matter is that grace is “unmerited favor,” not unlike the definition of the Latin word gratus.

Deb and I are very grateful that we have the cabin and all else that we have. We also have the great privilege of giving the cabin to many people in our lives. It gives us great joy to hear from the many people who have used the cabin over the years that it is good for them, and in some circumstances their favorite place to go. We have a pontoon boat that Deb and I use maybe once a year out of an obligation to the boat, but most of the hours on the boat are used by our guests. We are grateful that we can grace friends and their families with the cabin and its six boats (two kayaks, rowboat, paddle boat, pontoon, and an inflatable canoe). It’s just fun to have people enjoy the cabin. We always hear of their appreciation, which is nice to hear, but more important is the fact that they have enjoyed this special place.

As wonderful as grace and gratitude are, there are counterfeits to both. A counterfeit is something that looks like the real thing but is not the real thing.

Counterfeits to gratitude

The primary counterfeit to gratitude is expecting that I deserve something. I don’t really think that we deserve anything, and that everything is in some way a gift by grace from someone of Someone. But more importantly, the expecting that someone should give me what I want speaks of early life deprivation, where I didn’t get the basic ingredients of life, or early life indulgence, where I got more than I needed by my demanding and my parents giving in to my demands. However my expecting came about, it is never helpful.

The other counterfeit to gratitude is saying or feeling “I don’t deserve it.” I would say, “Of course you don’t deserve it. This is grace, guy,” but I wouldn’t really say that; I’d just think it. The “I don’t deserve it” comes also from one of the two sources noted above: getting too little in early life or getting to much.” We all suffer from one or both of these maladies. It is much harder to simply admit that I don’t deserve it and then receive the “it,” whatever that might be, than to resist receiving someone’s grace. Furthermore, when I really receive something that I don’t deserve, especially when I really need it, it humbles me. Humility, by the way, can come from well-established self-esteem. But that’s another story.

Counterfeits to grace

There are three counterfeits to grace that I know of but the primary one is giving in. Giving in is not the same thing as giving. I give in when I do something or give something that I really don’t want to do or give because I am afraid of the consequences of not giving. The difference between giving, on the one hand, and giving in, is quite profound. Giving is grace, giving in is not. Giving is loving; giving in is not loving. When we give in to someone (or sometimes to something), we always expect something in return, which is the telltale mark that I have given in. I sometimes tell people, “You can give your money, fine; you can give your left arm, fine; you can give your life, fine; but if you give in, even a penny or a moment of your time, not fine. You are lying. Furthermore, you are looking gracious but you are not. You are actually selfish because you expect something in return.

Another counterfeit to grace is giving a little, usually giving with regret and resistance. In these circumstances you just want to get someone off your back, so you give as little as you can in order to avoid someone’s disapproval. When you give as little as you can give, both you and your recipient lose: you give more than you want, and h/she knows that you don’t want to give in the first place.

The third kind of counterfeit to grace is giving up. “OK, I’ll give you want you want” or “No way I’m going to give you a nickel.” Both of these are essentially harmful. Giving because you feel compelled to give is not good for you, and being angry at the person to whom you are giving is not good for you. And your “giving,” if we even call it that, is not good for the other person.

In sum: give all that you have but don’t give what you don’t have to give. This doesn’t mean that you never do what you don’t want to do or never give to someone who you don’t like. It is often good for us to give to someone who we don’t want to give to, and to do things that we don’t want to do. I just want you need to be honest in your giving.

Friendly “Street People”

Deb and I just got back from a two-week journey of the country The Netherlands, otherwise known as Holland. We had the privilege of having some ideas of where and what we might see and do but not have anything in stone allowing ourselves the freedom of seeing what seem to be the right thing to or see on any particular day. This way of traveling is quite different from the way many folks travel as they have every day planned and every motel scheduled. We much prefer to see how the days unfold, opportunities arise, and disappointments come as we trust our feelings. This way of going about traveling reflects what we call a “low boundary” way of life, i.e. seeing how the days, weeks, and years unfold holding to a need for spontaneity and freedom. I will discuss “high boundary people” and “low boundary people” more extensively in a future blog, but allow me to talk about the “street people of The Netherlands” that we met and how they affected us.

The “street people” in The Netherlands are not the street people what we see in all of our US cities, people who are often homeless, helpless, and hopeless getting by on a few handouts by passers-by and maybe a few from a government agency or charity. The folks that I am calling street people are all over the place. We encountered them in every city, often several different places in the same city. They are certainly not helpless, hopeless, and homeless. Quite the opposite. They are, perhaps, the friendliest people we have ever met in our travels, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world. But let me explain how we came to meet so many Dutch street people, or rather how they came to meet us.

If you go about traveling with this “low boundary” orientation, you have to take the joys and the sorrows associated with such an approach to traveling, although a low boundary orientation has more to do with how one goes about life as a whole more than just traveling. Nevertheless, unless you are on some kind of guided tour where you jump on and off a bus and see the standard sites, you will often find yourself at a loss. You won’t know where you are or how to get to where you want to go. This could happen when you are in some kind of busy square in the center of Amsterdam trying to figure out what direction is north, a street corner in another part of Amsterdam wondering how to get to the Rijksmuseum, or in the train station trying to figure out what train to catch to get to Haarlem. Picture yourself in one of these situations looking around for some kind of street sign or directional sign. Deb and I found ourselves in these situations many times, and we must have looked pretty confused in our looking at a map, the GPS on our cell phone, or staring hopelessly at the street signs that are (usually, but not always) on the buildings. It’s a rare thing to see a real street sign on a post where one street goes north and south and the other east and west.

In this state of visible confusion enter the street people of The Netherlands. As we are standing, as stand-out confused Americans, we are approached by one or more street people asking, quite simply, “Can I help you?” “Can I help you” rings a pleasant note in us as we seem to have encountered an angel in disguise. Our American individualism is disturbed by this friendly gesture by a previously unknown stranger who now seems to be something like a long-lost cousin. My heritage is Swedish, so I am thinking, “Is this gal somehow related to the Vikings who tended to raid and pillage The Netherlands a thousand year ago?” while Deb thinks, “Did my Scottish clansmen do the same a few hundred years later?” We’re both wrong, although the population of The Netherlands has indeed been infiltrated by the likes of the Vikings, the Scots, the Celtics, the Franks, and the Germanic tribes over the centuries. All of this thinking disappears as this previously unknown person smiles and is clearly quite comfortable rendering help to what must appear to be quite a spectacle to him. Taken aback for a moment, we accept the invitation to help us find our way in this foreign, but friendly land.

Our first encounter with a Dutch street person took us by surprise, but after the same thing happened at least another dozen times, we began to trust that this sort of thing is a part of the culture of the country we were visiting. So, whether we were in a train station, a bus station, or just standing confused on a street corner, these 12 or more people came up to us unannounced and always with a friendly face and, of course, with perfect English. The best we could respond in Dutch was “dank u wel” (pronounced “dahn-u-vel”), meaning thank you much. Yet these friendly Dutch didn’t seem to need the appreciation as it seemed to be in their national character to render help to a stranger in some kind of need. There were even some circumstances when we were helped by a stranger who actually said nothing but just nodded, like when we were on a train that we thought was going to Schiphol Airport having heard us ask each other whether we were on the right train. Then he just went back to reading his newspaper.

We had a great time with the flowers, as one would expect this time of year, Amsterdam, of course, exploring the dykes and biking the roads, but these encounters with so many kind, unassuming strangers in a strange land truly affected us. Several times we asked these people why they would just offer help without so easily and freely. Their answer very often was, “Of course,” meaning, “Well, this is just natural for us to do. Isn’t it natural for everyone?” So we have come away from our wonderful trip to The Netherlands with great appreciation for the Dutch spirit of helping one another out. We had a few opportunities to express our appreciation for this Dutch spirit of help that seemingly erupts from the best of “socialism,” meaning the feeling that we are all in the world together and we help each other when someone is in need.

Left, Right, and Center

I’ve had a bit of a difficult morning. I didn’t feel quite “right.” Know what I mean? This “not quite right” brought me right into what I’ve been writing about lately, namely the murky realm of “feelings”. In fact, Deb and I are furiously writing and re-writing our latest endeavor, namely a book tentatively entitled, I Need to Tell You How I Feel. So, this “not quite right” feeling is quite like what we have been writing about; this “something”, or call it a “feeling,” may or may be terribly important, but it is real and needs to be acknowledged, examined, and valued so I can decide or discover what I should say or do…if anything. As I have written about in this whole business of “feelings,” I have allowed myself to “just feel” emotionally and physically, staving off too much thinking and certainly staving off doing or saying anything. As I have previously written, “feelings” as I understand them, are deep-seated, spiritual, and core self phenomena that then erupt first into physical, then emotional, then cognitive, and then productive expressions of feelings. You will note that the way I am using the word feelings is not to equate them with emotions, but suggest that emotions are but a subset of feelings.

One further note before I go on with the “left, right, and center” blog, if you will indulge me, please. People of different personality types and temperaments tend to gravitate towards one of the four elements of feelings, namely physical, emotional, cognitive, and productive. I tend to be a person who races right through the first three of these elements into doing something. So, my strength tends to be getting something done and fixing what needs to be fixed, while my weakness (strength to a fault) tends to be in doing too quickly and too instantaneously, often without sufficient time being spent in the physical, emotional, or cognitive areas of feelings. In the present case I have tried to allow myself to stay with these first three elements of feelings to get to an honest and appropriate place of doing something.

The “something that is not quite right” has to do with Facebook. I’m not a regular on Facebook and don’t have 700 “friends.” Maybe 50. And I don’t spend much time searching the friends I do have, except to keep up with the doings and dreamings of my friends, which is always fun. I’m sure I’m not the only Facebook guy who has been distressed by the increasing amount of advertising on Facebook, but I can tolerate that because I can just scroll down the page. What I have found, however, is that I am not tolerating increasingly vitriolic, one-sided, and mean-spirited political/social statements. I wrote to my Facebook friends some time ago that I would no longer respond to such statements, even to “like” them because I found it was not good for me to do so (read: “felt” bad to do so). This worked for the most part, but I still get postings of such statements, often from dear friends, that stir less than valuable feelings with me. In other words, I am not any better after having read such postings. Rather, I am worse, whatever that means. I have been musing about this matter for some days, if not weeks, and have worked diligently to follow my own advice on feelings: first physical (pit of my stomach not right), emotional (largely sadness), cognitive (agree, disagree), before I do something. But I think I have come to honestly decide what to do. But before I identify what action I intend to do, let me tell you my dilemma, which is the “left, right, center” part of this blog because I am quite left, quite right, and quite center on things social, political, and religious.

For instance, on the matter of LGBTQ, I suppose I am quite to the left. There is little doubt that one’s gender orientation is largely, if not entirely biological/genetic in origin. I have seen many gay patients and friends over the years who admit that they have never had heterosexual interest. While their reports do not amount to a scientific study, there are studies that are quite solid that seemingly prove that fact, not the least of which being the lack of any person every having “changed” from homosexual to heterosexual. So on this matter, I am quite left of center, if we use that term, but I am not left on all things.

I find myself quite right of center on several matters, including minimum wages and unions. I think, forgive me my left-leaning friends, but I think unions have long outlived their usefulness and have for years only entitled a very few at the cost of many. And as for a minimum wage, the current direction of companies and corporations are moving towards better hourly wages all on their own. You can’t find a job in Madison for less than $14/hour, which by the way is $28,000 a year. Here, capitalism works, at least it works when we don’t have monopolies.

Unfortunately, monopolies of any kind tend to protect the few at the expense of the many. Monopolies, by the way, would include unions, but also Google, Amazon, and the like, not unlike the monopolies that my favorite president, Theodore Roosevelt, Republican by the way, attacked. He also attacked violence begun by unions. Oh, for a person who could see both sides of the social/political spectrum today. So when then there is a free flow of opportunity, capitalism works just fine, but any kind of financial control makes capitalism only for the rich and powerful.

So I’m on the left and the right on such things, but there are many more phenomena, some social, some financial, and some racial that push me to one side or the other, not being able to find comradery with anyone. The idealist left-leaners had a good heart, but not a good head, when they instituted entitlements in the 1960’s, these entitlements keeping many people in poverty and dependence. Mean-spirited punitive measures by the political right have been no better with its insistence tax decreases for the rich. I was raised largely in the 1950’s that included (Republican) President Eisenhower suggesting that people making over a million dollars should pay 70% taxes. This “I have the right to what I want” attitude on the right infuriates me just as much as someone who panhandles on the corner right next to the Kwik Trip sign advertising for workers at $15/hour. I was caught in that dilemma when I debated about buying and giving blankets for the homeless not long ago thinking they should “just get a job” and then within an hour found myself buying 6 blankets for them. Free apartments: is that going to help them? No apartments: is that going to help them?

There are many more questions than there are answers. How, for instance, do we deal with the 100,000 migrants last month who sought asylum in America coming from gang-run poverty-ridden countries in the “northern triangle” in Central America. Good minds and good hearts ought to get together on this one and find a solution that is generous and reasonable. My own thought would be to cut our $650 billion for Defense in half (or more) and find ways to really invest in Africa and Central America, not just in dictators and despots. But mine is a simple answer, not more valuable than President Trump’s simplistic solution of a wall separating us “haves” from those “have nots.”

So am I right, left, or center. Depends on what you’re talking about. And it probably depends on what I have heard on the news and what I have read on Facebook. So my decision…or is it a discovery…is that I will “unfollow” my friends, both on the left and on the right, who stir me to distress. I recently and mistakenly responded to a deeply passionate post about “30 Christians murdered by Muslims in Nigeria,” and found my response was less than valuable, and the responses I heard in return lacking in a wider view of life. I don’t need the distress, much less than challenge of someone’s feelings. I should know better. And I certainly don’t need to end up in some kind of fruitless tit-for-tat with people I respect, love, and simultaneously antagonize if I speak my feelings. So for now, goodbye to some of you. I wish you well. I really do.

I feel better. Now about “feelings,”…